Possible TikTok ban in US: What's at stake and what comes next

Influencers may suffer and legal challenges could reach SCOTUS, experts said.

March 13, 2024, 5:02 AM

The high-stakes battle on Capitol Hill between lawmakers and TikTok over a potential ban of the popular social media app is set for a watershed House vote on Wednesday on a bill that could bar access to the platform in the United States.

TikTok, which boasts more than 170 million U.S. users, has emerged in recent years as a fixture of American life, shaping popular culture, supercharging the growth of the influencer economy and challenging some of the nation's largest companies, such as Meta and Google.

A ban could carry far-reaching implications for everything from the discovery of music stars to the dominance of tech giants, to the fundamental issue of how millions of Americans spend their leisure time, experts told ABC News. A landmark First Amendment battle in response to such a measure could make its way to the Supreme Court, according to one expert.

"TikTok is a hugely popular app," Matt Navarra, a social media industry analyst, told ABC News. "There would be a noticeable impact."

The House is set to vote Wednesday on legislation that would force the sale of TikTok from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. The House Energy and Commerce Committee had unanimously voted to advance the bill, which gives ByteDance six months to divest from TikTok or face a U.S. ban. While it appears poised to pass in the House, it's not yet clear if there would be the groundswell of support needed to get 60 votes for the legislation to advance in the Senate.

In response to ABC News' request for comment, TikTok condemned the proposed bill as an infringement on the right to express oneself freely.

"This legislation has a predetermined outcome: a total ban of TikTok in the United States. The government is attempting to strip 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression. This will damage millions of businesses, deny artists an audience and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country," a TikTok spokesperson said.

The social media platform has faced growing scrutiny from some government officials over fears that user data could fall into the possession of the Chinese government and the app could be weaponized by China to spread misinformation.

There is little evidence that TikTok has shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government or that the Chinese government has asked the app to do so, cybersecurity experts previously told ABC News.

Still, there's reason to believe the Chinese government could compel the company to share data on U.S. users or manipulate content on the app to forward a pro-China agenda, the cybersecurity experts added.

"Catastrophic" for some companies and a "gift" for others

Tens of millions of TikTok users in the U.S. spend an average of 82 minutes each day on the platform, according to a report released by market research firm SensorTower in 2022.

That sizable share of daily media consumption nationwide grants content creators on the platform considerable power to spread culture, promote political campaigns and sell products.

In the event of a TikTok ban, industries that advertise on the platform and creators who post on it would need to go elsewhere but may face difficulty replicating the appeal of the app, Tatiana Cirisano, a music industry analyst at data firm Midia Research, told ABC News.

"There's this difficult-to-pin-down cultural capital that exists on TikTok," Cirisano said. "It ends up being the place where current culture forms. That isn't necessarily happening in the same way on other platforms."

The music industry has come to depend on TikTok as a means of identifying talent, reaching new listeners and generating revenue through licensing agreements, Cirisano said.

"The industry would lose a very significant pathway to music discovery, especially for younger audiences," Cirisano said.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 26, 2023, file photo, the Tiktok Group Office Building is shown in Shanghai, China.
PHOTO: In this Nov. 26, 2023, file photo, the Tiktok Group Office Building is shown in Shanghai, China.
Future Publishing via Getty Images

On the whole, the prospect of a TikTok ban poses an imminent threat to creators who depend on it for their livelihoods, as well as businesses that rely on it to reach customers, Navarra said.

Roughly 5 million businesses have TikTok accounts, the company said last year. Many users have made their livelihood on the app, including some who make millions of dollars each year.

"For some small businesses and creators, the consequences will be catastrophic," Navarra said.

However, rival companies such as Meta-owned Instagram and Google-owned YouTube could benefit significantly from a potential TikTok ban, Navarra added.

Creators would likely flock to Instagram and YouTube in search of different platforms, Navara said, bringing advertisers with them as they chased the audience likely to follow their favorite stars. The user growth would lead directly to higher ad revenue for Google and Meta.

"A large number of users and eyeballs and attention would be gifted to rival platforms," Navarra said. "It would be a significant win."

Court battle over the First Amendment

The potential ban of TikTok would likely elicit a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds that could reach the nation’s highest court, Anupam Chander, a professor of law and technology at Georgetown University, told ABC News.

TikTok and its users could challenge the law as an infringement upon constitutionally protected freedom of speech, Chander said.

In opposition, Chander said, the U.S. government would likely argue that national security concerns should outweigh First Amendment protections.

"There would be substantial questions raised for the courts and ultimately the Supreme Court," Chander said.

Last May, TikTok sued Montana in federal court over a ban of the app enacted by the state, saying the law violated the First Amendment rights of users. Months later, in November, a federal judge ruled in favor of TikTok and blocked the law before it took effect.

If the U.S. enacts a law banning TikTok, a federal judge may order a temporary pause while the legal challenge makes its way through the court system due to the wide-reaching ramifications of such a measure.

"The First Amendment concerns are clearly very serious," Chander said. "And blocking the app would have enormous consequences for the livelihood of millions of people and the speech of millions of people."

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